Play the Past, a group blog about the use of video games in history teaching is producing some excellent posts. It’s particularly useful to me given my attitude to teaching with video games. It’d be nice to say I’m sceptical, but that implies I’ve had a critical look at the evidence and come to a reasoned conclusion. It’d be fairer to say I’m unreasonably hostile and there’s been a couple of good posts that show that.
Practical Necromancy for Beginners by Shawn Graham would have been a big help to me if it had been my introduction to modelling societies. I didn’t like models for history when I was introduced to them. What I saw was a big societal model with no real justification for the arbitrary processes that made up the model and then a detailed discussion of one of the sub-processes without much reference to the rest of the model, all presented as “this is how societies are”. Shawn Graham could have made a massive change to my first reaction thanks to one simple sentence:
“Ah. So you’re not simulating the past, but rather how you think x worked in the past.”
It’s small difference but it’s a subtle difference. He goes on to explain how you don’t have to accept any model he puts forward, you can change it. Again this adds support for accepting or rejecting a model. It also helps his models have consequences if you change the inputs and are not purely about dynamic thrusting arrows in exciting shapes and intersections.
There are places I could grumble. One of the benefits of computer models is that reading code requires close-reading which is a useful historical skill. Yes it is, but my gut reaction is why learn close-reading for history by examining code, when you could close-reading for history by examining historical texts? The gut is not noted for its large number of brain cells, and this example demonstrates why mine is no genius. Close-reading for code should be simpler. It should be unambiguous and lacking the complexities of meaning that words in historical text have. It’s an easier way of learning the skill that you can then take into more complex situations effectively making a shallower learning curve.
The only thing I could seriously say is missing is that models can also be helpful when they break down — if it’s a good model. If you have something is that working very well in most situations, but breaks down at a specific time or place, that’s a big clue that something really interesting is happening at that time or place. History is complex, so it’s certain that any model will break down sooner or later, but maybe a recognition that a model that breaks isn’t the same as a failed model would be helpful.
The other entry is older, but again shows me that I’m missing something, Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is it offensive enough? by Trevor Owens. I saw a brief flurry of tweets and I wasn’t interested. I’ve played Colonization, it’s a very basic game with not much adherence to the history of the times. My feeling was you could spin up something about historical relevance, but the limitations of technology would mean that it would have to be limited by design. If you actually read the post, you’ll see Trevor Owens goes way beyond that.
He points out that a game based in that period is by necessity going to have racist overtones, because the beliefs of the times and the colonisation processes were racist. Yet he makes a very sensible point that the Triangular Trade makes no appearance in Colonization. You see North America. You deal with Europe at a distance, but there is no Africa. I can see why the designers balked at making owning negro slave a fun activity. At the same time it does no favours to the African-American experience to completely ignore that the slavery existed. It’s not simply the limitations of PCs at the time that meant slavery was omitted. It was a choice. That blindness can be seen in other ways that we use or remember the past. It’s another good post.
I dare say there are shallow and vapid observations on the use of games in teaching. You can find shallow opinions in all fields, so it would be weird if teaching through gaming was exempt. What the Play the Past is showing is that it’s not inherently the case that teaching with computer games has to be shallow. So I’ve tried to work out why I have an immediate prejudice against teaching through gaming.
One reason might be puritanical. If it’s fun it’s not work. Games are supposed to be fun, ergo they can’t be work. It might be silly, but prejudices don’t have to be rational. Oddly another reason might be diametrically opposed to this. I’m not a huge fan of computer games. I’ve been tempted by Rome: Total War, that I’ve seen has hit the Mac App Store. That’s partly due to seeing it used in the semi-documentary Time Commanders which I liked. Prejudices don’t have to be consistent either.
I think another reason is that I haven’t grasped what games mean in the modern media landscape. I can see why someone would analyse the use of the past in films or books. Why not games? I don’t play many games, but it ignores the fact that many people do. It’s a massive industry that is rivalling the film industry in reach into households. People like me will disappear through natural wastage in time, but I wonder if people producing really clever and pioneering research and teaching tools are going to find a frustrating barrier of ignorance for the next few years.
For sensible commentary on games and models, see also the post that Shawn Graham linked to from his post, Student Created Sims as Historical Interpretations.